Lawyers yesterday stepped up their pressure on the government to overhaul the system for criminal legal aid with a joint letter to the secretary for home affairs, Tsang Tak-sing, warning that they might stop taking on legal-aid cases.
The letter is part of the Law Society's protest against the pay scheme for lawyers working on criminal legal-aid cases, which they say has needed an overhaul for more than a decade. It says the fees hardly cover lawyers' expenses.
Twelve members from the Law Society's criminal law and procedure committee will boycott cases from next month to send a message to the government that lawyers may no longer take on legal-aid cases. The boycott is expected to last a month.
'The impact on the public [of this boycott] will be minimal,' said Wong Kwai-huen, president of the Law Society, adding that the 12 lawyers each take on four to five legal-aid cases a year. 'What will impact on the public more is if lawyers stop taking on criminal legal-aid cases.'
However, a government statement yesterday gave no indication it was willing to improve on the reforms suggested this year.
'The government has undertaken to increase the expenses on assigned-out criminal legal-aid cases from HK$90 million to HK$190 million to facilitate a significant increase in the fees,' said a spokesman, adding that fees of lawyers engaged would be increased by 120 to 400 per cent, depending on individual cases.
'Amid the financial tsunami, the proposed increase represents the best possible level the government could strive for.'
Wong stressed that the dispute was not over how much lawyers should get paid, but the resources available for defence lawyers to prepare cases for their clients.
Legal sector lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said: 'Given the current economic climate, it is getting even more difficult for lawyers to spare their time to do pro bono work.'
The Home Affairs Bureau has promised to raise rates for solicitors taking on legal aid criminal cases in the District Court from HK$300 per hour to HK$620, while those on Court of First Instance cases will see an increase from HK$425 per hour to HK$730.
However, criminal-law solicitors said newly admitted lawyers taking on civil legal-aid cases in the High Court received HK$1,600 to HK$2,000 per hour, and those with five to six years of experience got HK$2,400 to HK$3,000.
Research by the Legislative Council Secretariat recently showed that spending per capita on Hong Kong's legal-aid system was HK$75, compared with HK$430 in England and Wales, HK$173 in Ontario, Canada, and HK$150 in New South Wales, Australia.
The new rates were due for legislative amendment in the coming session, and Stephen Hung Wan-shun, chairman of the criminal law committee, said the society was willing to accept those rates as long as the government was willing to commit to a set of principles for future talks.